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U.S. Open prize-money increase indirectly due to lack of U.S. players

Photo: Simon Bruty/SI

The U.S. Open will permanently hold men's semis Friday and final on Sunday as of 2015, the AP says.

A few questions are starting to trickle in regarding the USTA's announcement that U.S. Open prize money will increase to $50 million by 2017, almost a doubling of the 2012 amount.

There are lots of angles to this we can discuss in coming weeks, but let's start here: At some level, this is simply basic labor economics. The dance steps:

? The players (the employees) feel that they are being underpaid and that the prize money (wages) is out of whack with the tournament's gross revenues (the value of their labor) that goes to the USTA (management).

? The USTA trumpets attendance and sponsorship and economic impact -- and lavishes those pesky executive salaries -- that pierce the "we're a non-profit, you can't compare us to other sports properties" veil. And there is an overall aura of commerce, which causes the players to become more incensed.

? Player discontent grows over Super Saturday scheduling and a sense that TV is calling the shots, sometimes at the expense of the players' health and safety.

? United to an unprecedented degree -- thanks largely to the efforts of ATP board member Justin Gimelstob -- the players dare to mention the "b" word: boycott.

? The USTA blinks.

Don't overlook this, though: Indirectly, the prize-money increase is a result of the lack of U.S. players. For decades, top players accepted being paid less than the market rate, especially at their home Slam. When Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were riding high, they weren't about to boycott the U.S. Open. Yes, cynically, they were armed with Nike deals that incentivized playing in New York. But this was where they made their reputation. There might even have been an element of noblesse oblige, taking lower wages in order to benefit the home federation.

That dimension goes away with the current players. I always envision Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic or Victoria Azarenka saying: "So let me get this straight: You're paying me 50 cents on the dollar so you can resurface courts in Topeka or subsidize Sloane Stephens' travel? None of it even goes to MY federation? Huh?"

What's more, when there are so few top U.S. players, the boycott threats carry more heft. There was a time when the Americans could carry the tournament. If the other players wanted to threaten to host an alternative event, it would have triggered laughter. No more.

The problem, of course, becomes this: How does the USTA cover this new outlay? TV rights help. But, again, the absence of top U.S. players rears its head -- the ratings haven't exactly been spiking in recent years. Expanding the grounds will help. But that has run into snags.

And if budgets shrink because tens of millions of new dollars are now going to prize money, does that only add to the USTA's challenge of minting pros? It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. But this is just another sign that tennis now exists -- and does business -- in a brave, new, redundantly globalized world.

Mailbag

I know you're a (rare?) tennis and UFC fan like me and, on Saturday, my favorite in either sport, Rafael Nadal and Georges St-Pierre, had huge wins using similar grit and fighting spirit. I've always found Nadal and St-Pierre similar in so many ways. They're both great ambassadors, combining humility and class outside the tennis court/octagon with beastly ferocity and intensity inside it. You'll never hear them talk ill of opponents (unless pushed); they usually let their racket/fist do the talking. Finally, they're both among the very best in the history of their sports. Thoughts?-- Sammy, Toronto

? You say "rare," but I've always been surprised how many of you share my guilty pleasure and enjoy a vicious, humbling, brutally gladiatorial sport. And like the UFC, too. Nadal as St-Pierre isn't bad at all. Admirable grinders, a taste for competition at odds with their everyday disposition, ever-improving English. And, of course, they share a deep love of history and biology.

The obvious question: "Who is Federer?" Anderson Silva is the obvious answer -- a veteran, natural talent who can look untouchable -- but their demeanors could scarcely be different. Jon Jones? Maybe, but there's too big of an age gap. Serena Williams as Ronda Rousey? Step into the cage and continue here, go nuts.

Getting in on the ground floor of a promising young pro? If you could go back five or 10 years, how many players playing now would have actually paid off?-- Brandon, Chicago

? Let's define our deal terms. How much are you investing, and what does "paid off" mean? Paid off financially? There are far more prospects than players making a "profit" (i.e., those in the top 75). On the other hand, how cool would it be to have equity in an aspiring pro athlete?

Daniel Nagler of Miami writes: "The site you are looking for is InvolvedFan.com, and the entrepreneur is Dan Nagler. It is not unlike kickstarter.com, but for serious professional athletes who need a financial boost to really break through (a need that is an epidemic and a way of life for the athlete, yet a fact that most sports fans are oblivious to).

"After spending three years as an agent for players ranked 150-350, and seeing life from their shoes, I learned how hard they work and how talented they are and how amazingly difficult it is for them financially on tour. These players have many expenses (airfare, hotel, coaches, equipment, racket stringing, entry fees, etc.) and very little income. They play mostly Futures and Challengers, with miniscule prize money, and they live in the red.

"Meanwhile, fans want nothing more than to get close to the players and feel like they are actually involved and a part of the results. It is great, no doubt, to go to events and cheer from the stands, to watch on TV and follow in the newspapers. But if 100 fans each donate 100 dollars, a player who sits at home because they can't afford to travel to a tournament is now at that tournament, and their entire career trajectory is legitimately changed ... because of the fans.

"This is long overdue. Fans can be involved; they can make a real difference. A common thank-you gift from a player to a contributing fan is a Skype session (for example, a fan in Nebraska can Skype with a player in the Australian Open player lounge)."

Juan Martin del Potro's career can now be separated in two categories: Before the Argentine Pope and After the Argentine Pope.-- J., Portland

? So far, post-pope is off to a fast start. He beat Djokovic and reached the Indian Wells final. And Del Potro might well be my pick to win Miami.

NGUYEN: Miami men's preview

I vehemently disagree with your assessment that Maria Sharapova's in the "troika" of the WTA. Until she defeats Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka consistently, it's clearly a duopoly. Sharapova stands no chance against Serena (arguably the greatest) and Azarenka. That, in my opinion, makes Sharapova the David Ferrer of the WTA -- demarcated by a few notches from the Grand Slam favorites but always ready to scoop the trophy if they fumble. -- Sridhar Ramanamurthy, Franklin Lakes, N.J.

? Come on, Sridhar. Sharapova has won the career Slam and is the defending French Open champion. Ferrer has won one Masters title in his career. Does she have an unfortunate head-to-head record against the other two, at least in recent years? Yes. Is she still in the conversation? Absolutely.

Before the season, most pundits predicted Sara Errani and Angelique Kerber would be unable to maintain the same form we witnessed in 2012. It was like it was a forgone conclusion that last year's results were flukes. Yet we keep seeing them at the tail end of tournaments. What gives?-- LT, Toronto

? Wait, pundits can be wrong? Errani lost in the first round of the Australian Open but has resumed her winning ways since then. She's not going to blow anyone away with power, and credit her with racking up wins. As for Kerber, she was on a three-match losing streak heading into Indian Wells. (Incidentally: A first-round loser in Doha and Dubai still clears $30,500? Wow.) She won three matches over lesser foes in Indian Wells, got to the semis when Sam Stosur withdrew and then lost to Caroline Wozniacki.

Capybara 19, Federer 10. Surely the "GOAT" can do better?-- Mark, Houston

? Got a few of these -- and we chose Mark's because of the "Capybara" reference. Again, Federer's head-to-head record against Nadal "is what it is," if you will. (And I know you will.) It is not the highlight of his résumé. In fact, it might be the most damning charge you could level against him. On the other hand, it does not disqualify him from GOAT status.

PHOTOS: Nadal-Federer rivalry over time

Please help settle a debate that started up while my wife and I were watching Federer play Nadal. I say Federer would have well over 20 Grand Slam titles by now if he had a two-handed backhand. My wife says that Federer's one-hander is part of the overall package -- that his game would not be as free-flowing if he had a second hand on the backhand, and he would be a completely different player. Thus, she could not predict how Federer would play with a two-hander.-- Ronald, Columbia, S.C.

? Sorry, but I agree with your wife. He has more reach with the one-hander. Especially on grass, how many points have we seen him win with that cross-court flick? And the one-hander is part of his entire free-flowing game. If he has a two-hander, it upsets the entire stasis.

You gave a shout-out to Kerber in your Indian Wells wrap-up. Really?! Did you watch any of her "moonball rally" match against Wozniacki? Maybe you missed it. I wasn't so lucky. Oy vey!-- Ari O., Alexandria, Va.

? Oy vey is right. But, hey, whatever it takes.

I think we know who is comeback player of the year, no?-- Margaret Guthrie, Philadelphia

? Ernests Gulbis? Probably. But there's still a lot of tennis to be played this year. And maybe Nadal has a chance, too.

Gulbis entertains fans at Indian Wells

Shots, Miscellany

? Tennis analytics?

? Rod of Toronto: "A quick note on two subjects in your March 6 mailbag. One about racquet technology: In 1989, my first swing with a wide-bodied racquet had my HEAVILY top-spinning forehand not only sailing over the baseline but hitting the back fence about six feet above the ground. So: huge bump in power at the time. The second point is about auditory descriptions of tennis grunting. It's not mine, but I believe Ted Tinling once likened Monica Seles' grunts to the sounds of someone wringing the neck of the Christmas goose."

? Tickets for the U.S.-Sweden Fed Cup playoff on April 20-21 in Delray Beach, Fla., went on sale Wednesday at 888-334-8782.

? This week's book recommendation: Championship Tennis, co-authored by Jon Levey.

? Andre Agassi takes another honor.

? Tennis Channel announced the appointment of longtime broadcasting executive Virginia Hunt to executive director, programming.

? Long-lost siblings comes courtesy of Svetlana Kuznetsova's Instagram: Andrei Kirilenko and Bernard Tomic.

NGUYEN: Sony Open women's preview

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